Pregnancy happened easily for me. It wasn’t the same for my good friend.
Joanne and I met at college. Even though we were very different, we shared the same sense of humor and could talk for hours about everything from movies to the guys we were crushing on.
Our friendship continued after we graduated. We often got together to catch up and commiserate about bills and bosses. When I got married, she was in my wedding party, and a few years later I walked down the aisle at hers.
Joanne was one of the first people I confided in when I found I was pregnant. She couldn’t have been more excited. She helped me pick out layette items and indulged my odd cravings when we had brunch dates.
When my daughter arrived, “Aunt” Joanne doted on her. Joanne never complained when our GNO’s became pizza nights in because I was nursing or couldn’t get a babysitter.
Three years later, when I gave birth to my second child, Joanne was equally supportive. At that point, I knew she and her husband were trying to conceive. As I watched her laugh and play with my daughters, I couldn’t wait for her have children so we could go through parenthood together, just like we had so many other life milestones.
But instead, Joanne’s journey to becoming a mother was a lot more arduous than mine had been. She confided in me that she and her husband were having fertility issues. I supported her as she endured what seemed like endless exams, injections, tests, and procedures. I showed up to surprise her at one of her IVF appointments and offer moral support.
When she told me she was finally pregnant, we both started jumping up and down like two kids who just found out they were going to Disney World. And then, when Joanne miscarried at 13 weeks, I sat next to her hospital bed as she sobbed.
Joanne and I talked about everything. We didn’t keep secrets from each other. That is until I found out I was pregnant with my third child.
The pregnancy had been a pleasant surprise for my husband and me. Even though we weren’t trying to conceive, we were thrilled to be adding to our family. But I couldn’t share my joy with Joanne. I felt too guilty. How could I tell her that I was having another baby when I already had two and all she desperately wanted was one?
Gita Zarnegar, PsyD, MFT, co-founder of The Center for Authenticity, says, “It is reasonable to feel some feelings of guilt upon finding out that you are pregnant on your first attempt while your best friend has been trying for several years with no success. Your guilt indicates your empathic attunement towards someone’s painful struggles.”
I felt gluttonous — like I had taken more than my share of the children. As Dana Dorfman, PhD, MSW, a New York City-based psychotherapist, explains, “Even though you haven’t taken something away from your friend, it can feel that way.”
I wish I had been more open with Joanne and told her the news when I passed my 12-week-mark. But I didn’t. Both of us were busy, so we hadn’t been able to catch up in person. Instead, we spoke on the phone and each time I hung up without telling her, I felt like a liar.
My goal was to protect her, but ultimately, I should have spoken up sooner. Zarnegar says, “People who are having infertility issues do not want to be treated differently, because it adds to their experience of shame and defectiveness.”
When I finally told her over the phone, I was already 6 months along. My delivery lacked any eloquence. I just blurted it out and started crying.
It was Joanne who consoled me when it should have been the other way around. She wasn’t upset that I was pregnant. She was happy for me even though I think she also felt sadness and a bit of envy. As Zarnegar explains, “One emotion does not cancel out the other.”
But she was hurt that I hadn’t confided in her sooner. My desire to protect her had backfired because it insinuated that I knew what was best for her more than she did.
Dorfman says, “To say, ‘I know her so well, so I know how she is going to feel’ isn’t fair. Each person’s reaction will be highly individual. One person cannot write another person’s narrative.”
Adds Zarnegar, “Delaying the disclosure will make her feel more self-conscious and troubled that you withheld this intimate information from her.”
“It’s much better to talk about the elephant in the room and to allow both parties to have their feelings,” Dorfman reminded me.
Which is exactly what Joanne and I did. I apologized for waiting so long to tell her my news, and she appreciated my intention to spare her feelings. From that point on, I followed Joanne’s lead. I told her what was going on in my life, including the ups and downs, but being careful not going into excessive detail unless she asked.
We also continued to speak about her ongoing fertility struggles. I listened more and talked less. Zarnegar explains, “We lessen the pain of isolation for someone who feels alone in the abyss of her suffering by our shared experiences of common humanity and compassion.”
I didn’t say things like, “I understand” because I knew I did not. Dorfman says, “It’s tempting to want to offer solutions or wise phrases to give a friend hope, but infertility is different for everyone. Better to ask open-ended questions and just to let your friend know you are here to support them however they need.”
Ultimately our friendship survived because we were honest about our mixed emotions. Joanne has continued to be a great friend to me and aunt to my kids; and a few years ago, I got to become an aunt to her beautiful daughter.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are some suggestions to keep in mind:
- Be honest. Let your friend know the truth, especially before she finds out from someone else. Tell her when you tell other people you are pregnant.
- Be a friend, not a doctor or a fortune-teller. It’s better to listen to your friend’s experience and concerns, not to give advice or platitudes.
- Share appropriate details. Don’t paint an overly rosy picture but also avoid complaining about the minor aches and pains of a healthy pregnancy
- When in doubt, ask. If you aren’t sure what to say to your friend, say that. Ask her how much she wants to hear and respect her wishes.
- Be understanding. Invite her to your shower or baby naming, but also tell her you understand if she does not want to attend. Put her feelings first.
Randi Mazzella is a freelance journalist and writer specializing in parenting, mental health and wellness, midlife, empty nesting, and pop-culture. She has been published on many websites including The Washington Post, Next Avenue, SheKnows, and The Girlfriend. Randi is a wife and mother of three children ages 25, 22, and 16. To read more of her work go to www.randimazzella.com or follow her on Twitter.